Board-Savvy Superintendent

Getting Your Board Out of Micromanagement

by Donald R. McAdams

Micromanagement! Every superintendent hates the word. Every governance authority condemns the practice. Yet school board members seem irresistibly pulled into micromanagement.

The horror stories are legion. One newly appointed superintendent in a large district invited me to work with his board because the members were daily visiting schools, clipboards in hand, to identify problems that needed to be solved. They were following up with directives to staff to change bus routes, renovate facilities, replace principals and even buy property. Board members informed me they were elected to serve the people, and serve the people they would. Shortly thereafter, the superintendent resigned to accept a much smaller district superintendency in another state.

Perhaps the worst example I have witnessed was in a small district, where a school board met to hear a superintendent’s recommendation to terminate a high school principal. The board adjourned the hearing, met in executive session with the principal but not the superintendent, and then reconvened in open session to announce the principal would be restored to his principalship along with a raise!

Constituent Expectations
Of course, it is not usually this bad, but all superintendents have to cope with the natural tendency of board members to micromanage. Micromanagement comes in two flavors — individual board members trying to solve problems for constituents, and board members individually or collectively trying to influence major management decisions.

Why do board members do this? No doubt some are following personal agendas, but most are well-intentioned and insert themselves into management because constituents want them to and they believe intervention is necessary for the good of the district.

In a democracy, the people expect their elected representatives to intervene on their behalf. Members of Congress, state legislators and city council members respond to their needs. Why should not school board members? Indeed, school board members must provide constituent service. But there is a right way and a wrong way.

What should board-savvy superintendents do? First, make their districts as effective and customer friendly as possible. Parents and others deserve such service. And in customer-friendly districts there are fewer complaints.

Second, superintendents must manage with fairness and as much transparency as circumstances allow. Board members who are appropriately in the loop observing objective and information-based decision making are less likely to second-guess management.

Still, from time to time, constituents will bring problems to the attention of board members, and there will be some major management decisions that some board members will want to influence. How should the board-savvy superintendent respond?

Regarding constituent complaints, the superintendent must educate board members that the right way to respond is to first direct the complainant back into the system, at the lowest possible level. Second, if this effort has been made and failed, direct the constituent to the next level of supervision. Only after the constituent has failed to receive an adequate response from the district should the board member bring the complaint to the attention of the superintendent or his or her designee.

Firm Rejections
Superintendents should work with their boards to develop protocols for board member response to constituent complaints and place these protocols into board policy. They also must create management systems to assure that constituent problems are solved quickly and board members informed of their resolution. Whether a prior management decision is affirmed or a real problem solved, the board member has a right to a copy of the notification provided to the constituent.

A system that tracks board member referrals provides an additional value. By analyzing complaint patterns, management can sometimes identify systems failures that need attention. This has been the case in Duval County, Fla., Public Schools, where board and management have worked together to create a sophisticated information management system to track board member referrals.

With board policy and supporting systems in place, there is no excuse for micromanagement. The superintendent should report to the board president any board member attempts to problem solve, and the board president and the board, if necessary, should apply the appropriate discipline. Usually a private rebuke is all that is required.

Board intrusion into major district management decisions — principal selection, central-office organization, procurement, etc. — must be firmly rejected. At the first attempt, the superintendent should respond, “Will you accept a friendly no, or would you like me to present your request to the board at a posted meeting?”

By educating board members, working with their boards to put into place appropriate policies and systems for handling board referrals, managing fairly based on good information and as much transparency as possible and then standing firm on their prerogatives as chief executive officers, superintendents can both assure excellent customer service and maintain a healthy governance team.

Donald McAdams is president of the Center for Reform of School Systems in Houston, Texas. E-mail: mcadams@crss.org